Kissinger: Allende More Dangerous Than Castro

By coincidence, Greg Grandin has a piece on Allende and Chile in the new issue of the London Review of Books.  It sets out very clearly why so many on the right saw Allende as such a profound threat.

And then came Allende, horn-rimmed, jowly and looking a little too well lived to be a revolutionary. An avowed Marxist who was also an avowed democrat, he was at odds with Kissinger’s bipolar world. He was neither raw nor cooked. ‘I don’t think anybody in the government understood how ideological Kissinger was about Chile,’ an aide at the National Security Council once said. ‘I don’t think anybody ever fully grasped that Henry saw Allende as being a far more serious threat than Castro. If Latin America ever became unravelled, it would never happen with a Castro. Allende was a living example of democratic social reform in Latin America. All kinds of cataclysmic events rolled around, but Chile scared him.’ Seymour Hersh, drawing on a conversation with another NSC staffer, wrote that what Kissinger feared most about Allende was not his winning the presidency but that at the end of his term ‘the political process would work and he would be voted out of office in the next election.’ Socialism, much less Marxism, could not be seen to be compatible with electoral democracy. In early September 1971, Allende wrote to Nixon, asking him to bring to an end Washington’s ‘economic and financial coercion’, perhaps hoping to appeal to the president’s Quaker conscience:

The greatest defence of the legitimate rights and aspirations of small countries such as mine lies in the moral strength of their convictions and actions … The harsh reality of our country – the hunger, the poverty and the almost complete hopelessness – has convinced our people that we are in need of profound changes. We have chosen to carry these changes out by means of democracy, pluralism and freedom; with friendship toward all peoples of the world.

But Nixon was the kind of Quaker Herman Melville warned against: ‘Quakers with a vengeance’. He couldn’t say Allende’s name without sputtering a curse. Just a few days after Allende’s election, Nixon’s CIA told its Santiago operatives to use ‘every stratagem, every ploy, however bizarre’, to provoke a coup. Time was short, Langley said, so they should ‘telescope’ history. Otherwise, the campaign would be ‘diffuse, denatured and ineffective, not leaving the indelible residue in the mind that an accumulation of arsenic does. The key is psych war within Chile. We cannot endeavour to ignite the world if Chile itself is a placid lake. The fuel for the fire must come from within Chile.’

Some, including Falcoff, argue that the White House hoped for an interim liberal government and couldn’t have predicted the brutality of the Pinochet regime. This is false. Harmer stresses that Washington ‘wanted authoritarian rule patterned on Brazil’s dictatorship and a war against the left as the only remedy to reverse the damage done by Allende’s presidency’. Washington was concerned that ‘Chilean military leaders were not Brazilian enough, either in terms of their readiness for repressing the left or in their ideological sense of a mission.’ They needn’t have worried.

Harmer dispatches two myths favoured by those who blame the coup on Allende himself. The first is that his commitment to democracy was opportunistic and would soon have been abandoned. ‘One might even,’ Falcoff writes, ‘credit the Nixon administration with preventing the consolidation of Allende’s “totalitarian project”’. The second is that even if Allende wasn’t a fraud he was a fool, unleashing forces he could not control – for example, the left wing of Popular Unity, and the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, which was further to the left of Allende’s coalition and drew inspiration from the Cuban Revolution, Cuba conceived here as a proxy for Moscow.

Harmer shows that Allende was a pacifist, a democrat and a socialist by conviction not convenience. He had an ‘unbending commitment to constitutional government’ and refused in the face of an ‘externally funded’ opposition ‘to take a different non-democratic or violent road’. He invoked history to insist that democracy and socialism were compatible, yet he knew that Chile’s experience was exceptional. During the two decades before his election, military coups had overthrown governments in 12 countries: Cuba in 1952; Guatemala and Paraguay in 1954; Argentina and Peru in 1962; Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and again Guatemala in 1963; Brazil and Bolivia in 1964; and Argentina once more in 1966. Many of these coups were encouraged and sanctioned by Washington and involved subverting exactly the kind of civil-society pluralism – of the press, political parties and unions – that Allende promoted. So he was sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution and respected Castro, especially after he survived the CIA’s Bay of Pigs exploit in 1961. And when Allende won the presidency, he relied on Cuban advisers for personal security and intelligence operations.

But Cuba’s turn to one-party authoritarianism only deepened Allende’s faith in the durability of Chilean democracy. Socialism could be won, he insisted, through procedures and institutions – the ballot, the legislature, the courts and the media – that historically had been dominated by those classes most opposed to it. Castro warned him that the military wouldn’t abide by the constitution. Until at least early 1973 Allende believed otherwise. His revolution would not be confronted with the choice that had been forced on Castro: suspend democracy or perish. But by mid-1973, events were escaping Allende’s command. On 11 September he took his own life, probably with a gun Castro gave him as a gift. The left in the years after the coup developed its own critique of Allende: that, as the crisis hurtled toward its conclusion, he proved indecisive, failing to arm his supporters and train resistance militias, failing to shut down congress and failing to defend the revolution the way Castro defended his. Harmer presents these as conscious decisions, stemming from Allende’s insistence that neither one-party rule nor civil war was an acceptable alternative to defeat.

A photograph of Allende taken during his last hours shows him leaving the presidential palace, pistol in hand and helmet on head, flanked by bodyguards and looking up at the sky, watching for the bombs. The image is powerful yet deceptive, giving the impression that Allende had been at the palace when the coup started, and was beginning to organise resistance to it. But Allende wasn’t trapped in his office. He’d gone there earlier that morning, despite being advised not to, when he heard that his generals had rebelled. The Cubans were ready to arm and train a Chilean resistance and, Harmer writes, ‘to fight and die alongside Allende and Chilean left-wing forces in a prolonged struggle to defend the country’s revolutionary process’. But Allende ordered them not to put their plans into operation, and they listened: ‘The Chilean president,’ Harmer says, ‘was therefore far more in control of Cuba’s involvement in his country than previously thought.’ He also rejected the idea of retreating to the outskirts of Santiago and leading an armed resistance: in Harmer’s assessment, he committed suicide rather than give up his commitment to non-violent revolution.

You’d think such a man—non-violent, procedural, constitutional, on principle—would be the darling of libertarians, at least as they often define themselves and their ultimate commitments (to the rule of law and so forth). You’d be wrong.


  1. troy grant July 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm | #

    Allende might have survived if he had turned the government over to the people in a decentralized direct democratic way, using the popular initiative and binding referendum instead of relying on the trap of centralized leadership. This may be the only way to achieve real democracy without involving leaders that can be easily assassinated or voted out by corrupted elections. Swiss, Scandinavian and increasingly Latin American countries have and are modeling their governments the direct democratic way with great success.

  2. Richard Girard July 11, 2012 at 4:47 pm | #

    I damn near choked when I saw the header on this article. If I were Allende’s daughter I would sue Kissinger for defamation of character.

  3. swallerstein July 11, 2012 at 5:17 pm | #

    Allende may well have been proud to have been thought more dangerous (to U.S. imperialism) than Fidel.

    (I’m from Chile and pro-Allende).

  4. BillW July 11, 2012 at 5:34 pm | #

    Just as Iranian MeK terrorists are being treated with kid gloves by Washington policymakers, back in the day they also turned a blind eye to those carrying out car bombings in Sheridan Circle, a few blocks from the White House, executing US citizens in cold blood, bombing their version of the White House, etc., etc.

  5. wohlstet July 11, 2012 at 11:45 pm | #

    The solemn invocation of the word ‘democracy’ is a necessary ritual for the American politician or economist. Deep down, none of them believe in it and are always ready to toss it overboard as the occasion demands. Allende is the only leader I’ve ever heard use the word who was a democrat in every fiber of his being and acted like one to the end. That’s why he’s still such a threat, why both the U.S. and Chilean Right put so much energy in trying to blacken his name (the democratic talk was a façade, he had a secret plan to deliver Chile to Cuba etc.). So it’s worth looking at Allende in action.

    Archetypal scene. A band of homeless people sets up tents on a vacant, privately owned lot. Campesinos, urged on by student activists, occupy a large estate. Factory workers seize an enterprise that is not designated for the Area of Social Property (APS). Allende arrives on the scene and delivers some variation of the following speech…

    “I’ve come to you in person today, Compañeros. You don’t see me hiding behind a line of soldiers. I didn’t send the police to drive you away—like the last government used to do. I’m here to talk to you, one man to another. To explain to you how I see the situation. I have to tell you that as President of the Republic I’m called upon to apply the law. I have to remind you, Compañeros: we have sworn to fulfill our program—a revolutionary, socialist, and democratic program—strictly within the legal rules that exist. To be able to do this, we need the support of all people who share our vision of a Chile that offers dignity to all its citizens. To keep that support we have to show that we are a government and not a group of people without responsibilities. I haven’t come here to receive your applause. I’m appealing to your consciousness.”

    Different scene, same dynamic. Allende speaking from the balcony of La Moneda on June 29, 1973 after an attempted coup. He has faced nothing but coup attempts since he took office but this was the most serious: a tank regiment attacked the palace, twenty-two dead, mostly civilians. An angry crowd of 80,000 people wants that nest of sedition called ‘Congress’ closed down; a suspension of the laws; the revolutionary seizure of power. He refuses to do this.

    “The People must understand I have to fulfill what I promised… to make changes preserving liberty, democracy and pluralism.” To boos and shouts of, “Government and the armed people will never be defeated!” he responds, “I know what I’m going to say will not please many of you. But you have to understand the real position of this government. I will not close Congress, it would be absurd, I’m not going to do it…By all means, let’s create “popular power”, but not antagonistic to, not independent of government, which is the fundamental power that the People possess to advance the revolutionary process.”

    You don’t have to be George Bush to use such made-for-demagoguery moments to advance an anti-democratic agenda. Few politicians could resist it. Allende is the exception. He tries to explain, to persuade (“I know what I’m going to say will not please many of you.”)

    As Grandin writes, “The left in the years after the coup developed its own critique of Allende: that, as the crisis hurtled toward its conclusion, he proved indecisive, failing to arm his supporters and train resistance militias, failing to shut down congress and failing to defend the revolution the way Castro defended his.”

    He made one decision that I still question: not to utilize his presidential power to force openly disloyal generals into retirement, a constitutional prerogative that other Presidents, including his predecessor, Eduardo Frei, had exercised. It was obvious in those last months, between the attempted coup of June 29 and the final one on September 11, who the conspirators were, particularly in the Navy and the Air Force. They were speaking out openly, arming right-wing terrorists, defying the law. Jorge Magasich writes: “A call to retire the coup plotters, although legal, implied almost certainly war, in the context similar to that of Spain in 1936.” On the plus side, Magasich points out, the government would have faced a more disorganized and weaker coup. “It was probable that the Armed Forces would divide, that Constitutionalist officers would maintain their posts of command, and a good portion of the troops would have chosen to support the government.” We’ll never know.

    Note, however, that this critique is a tactical one. It’s not a critique of so-called ‘reformism’ (drawing on the dubious ‘Reform v.s. Revolution distinction which serves only to keep the Left divided, as it certainly was in Chile). It doesn’t suggest that Allende’s whole strategy was misguided, that his mistake was in not arming the people, in not invoking Carl Schmitt and jettisoning his democratic ways. Only that his concern at not providing a pretext for coup led him not to employ powers that were legally his.

    As for the idea of Armed Struggle, a tactic that in the 60’s was mistaken for a strategy (and still is), here’s a sober reconsideration from one of its major theorists, Regis Debray, doing his post-mortem on Allende’s Chile and explaining why putting a few AK’s in the hands of a hypothesis called The People isn’t going to cut it.

    “Arming? – with what arms? If only all the people who hand out good and bad marks could also, with their good advice, provide rifles and ammunitions, bazookas, anti-aircraft guns, mortars, tanks… And can civilians learn to use these things within a couple of months? And would the army (which, you must remember, had not been weakened or dispersed by any civil war at home or any defeat abroad) have watched with their arms folded as all these things were imported or distributed?… Would they have applauded the opening of holiday training camps for workers, coming in rotation to learn to handle all these complex devices? …Or perhaps offered their help in speeding up the process (the first step being to disband themselves?)…”

    Or to quote myself here.

    “Someone is always threatening to play a card called ‘the Armed People’ without looking closely at the hand history has dealt.
    Allende, at least, knows what cards he holds.
    Not as good-looking as Che.
    Not as able to capture the imagination of the young.
    A dandy dresser whose courtly manners already seem passé.
    Who knew? The real relic from Garibaldian days was the guerilla in a beret, who embodied aspirations for change but not the path to it.”

  6. wetcasements July 13, 2012 at 5:42 am | #

    Kissinger is/was a war criminal.

  7. Nichole Webbering July 16, 2012 at 5:39 pm | #

    “Kissinger is/was a war criminal.”

    Maybe. although his and Nixon’s conduct of Vietnam likely doesn’t make it to “war criminal” status, I think. It’d be nice if it did and the old scut had been cashiered and imprisoned before Chile.

    Now, criminal?

    That I am in agreement with. Henry Kissinger. like the current oligarchs, beheld a world and imagined himself the Master of (that) Universe. He knew best because he imagined himself the new Metternich, saving the ancien regime and slaughtering those who would overthrow it.

    A delusional criminal mind who, like other sociopaths, cannot imagine anyone in-charge who isn’t himself. It’d be agreeable to see him live out his days in a super-max.

    • Not for too big to faol January 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm | #

      But is punishment an answer? How about just a nursing home like the rest of the social security group?

  8. Tomas Anderson July 18, 2012 at 11:49 am | #

    Indeed, Allende was more dangerous than Castro, because Chile was incomparably more important geographically, economically, politically and culturally than a Caribbean island like Cuba. A communist Chile could have engulfed easily the weak democracies of Peru and Bolivia, and then Ecuador and Colombia. A nightmare for the USA….and for Latin America.

    • troy grant July 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm | #

      The nightmare for the USA and Latin America is conservatism in all forms, right, left and theocratic. There is a direct relationship between concentrated wealth and/or power and conservatism. The money-power is conservative as a result of having more to conserve. The international oligarchy is paleo-conservative as a result of owning and controlling the world. Hegemonic left dictatorships and theocracies simply put power before wealth, with like results.

      The oligarchy places little dictators in control that are easy to manipulate with bribes or coercion. It does so with surrogates to give the appearance of remaining pure as the driven snow while their employees do the dirty work. And it rationalizes its existence by propagating the falsehood that oligarchs are necessary, being equipped with superior “breeding” and knowledge. That the little people can’t be trusted to manage their affairs democratically. Hegemons and theocrats usually employ force more outwardly, but with the same effect.

      With conservatives in centralized control, there can never be peace and general prosperity. They refuse to share, pushing unlimited growth as the panacea for all our problems caused by their banks, Stock Exchange Casinos, their spies and their guns.

      Wealth and power distribution in humans is outrageously out of sync with nature’s intent, but the money-power’s drive for ever more persists. It looks out for number one, not for the little people that may threaten their further acquisition of wealth and power.

      Decentralized government by direct democracy has shown to be the antidote to centralized conservative rule.

  9. Mike Ballard September 12, 2013 at 1:55 am | #

    I wonder whether Allende’s ‘socialism’ was any more socialist than the election of ‘socialists’ in Sweden or Denmark proved to be.

    “The Monroe Doctrine” was under severe threat during the Cold War. From the sucessful coup against Arbenz in Guatemala to the unsuccessful attempt to unseat Fidel at the Bay of Pigs. From invasion of the Dominican Republic to the invasion of Panama. From the coup in Brazil to the coup in Chile. And so on and so on. Pretty consistent, if you ask me. U.S. foreign policy aims to maintain the Western Hemisphere under U.S. hegemony is a given. Bourgeois democratic Venezuela appears to be the new threat, although less so of one since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think Allende knew this power game well and he knew that embracing the MIR’s urgings would spark a coup even before the one which happened exploded on September 11.

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